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The Translator Relay: Karen Sherwood Sotelino

By Words Without Borders

WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator every few months. The current month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.

For July's installment, Adam Morris passed the baton to Karen Sherwood Sotelino, who translates from Portuguese into English.


What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I learned a bit of Spanish as a child, then French in high school and Italian and Portuguese at university. Each of these Romance languages is intriguing and amusing in its way for the novice monolingual English speaker. French speakers employ a fair amount of phatic phrases and interjections—et alors, dis donc, quand meme, et puis—which, at first listen, render most topics urgent and interesting. With Italian I learned about implicit subjects, a concept I found fascinating, having already been a big fan of conjugating verbs when I studied French. By the time I got to Portuguese, I could much appreciate how the language embraces aspects of the other Romance languages: phatic phrases and interjections galore (tudo bem, mesmo assim, não diga, and the ubiquitous se Deus quiser, “God willing”) and extensive use of not only the implicit subject but also the indeterminate se. Unbeknownst to me at the time, all of these aspects of the Romance languages I found intriguing were turning me into a translator.

After university, I lived in Rio de Janeiro for two years, and later in São Paulo for eighteen years. Initially I was interested in, and trained in, simultaneous translation. I also studied what was called technical translation, i.e., journalistic, medical, and engineering translation. Eventually I taught in the same language institute where I’d studied, Associação Alumni, in São Paulo. All the while, I considered reading literature my hobby—Agatha Christie, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and T. S. Eliot. To this day, although I do translate some contemporary authors, I am drawn to nineteenth-century literature.

I translate from both European and Brazilian Portuguese, although I have only visited Portugal, both as a tourist and as a university lecturer, whereas I’ve spent long periods of time in Brazil.  The variances between the two versions are similar in degree to what we find in the different varieties of English. I’d venture to say that in the same way people who read United States authors use the knowledge gained from those books to penetrate other varieties of English, so too did my research into Brazilian literature give me access to the realm of Portuguese literature.


Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase and tell us how you brought it into English?

The most well-known example in Portuguese is the word saudades. It is used to describe longing for people and places, a longing with a strong dose of memory, somewhat like Proust’s madeleine. So, it can be a bit tricky. Usually longing works, but if a character greets another by saying, “I had saudades of you,” then a simple “I’ve missed you” will fit the bill. Just this past week, in The Economist, saudades was translated as “nostalgia.” Yet another possibility is “homesickness.”

“I don’t think of translation as a transference or breakthrough.”

I’ve just been dealing with another tricky term: chácara. In current parlance, it would normally refer to a weekend country house, though probably not a beach house. One imagines a fruit grove or, at the least, a garden. People say, “I’m going to our chácara this weekend.” But in nineteenth-century literature, it sometimes refers to an urban house with a large garden and/or fruit grove. It can also mean only the grounds, not the house itself. To get the reader to visualize what is going on, one must choose one of these terms: country house, weekend getaway, gardens, grounds, grove. The most interesting aspect of these so-called untranslatable terms is that they are emblematic of the entire translation process insofar as we always need to be cognizant of context.


Do you have any translating rituals? 

Notwithstanding Roland Barthes’s concept that l’auteur est mort, usually one of the first things I do is read about the author’s life, as if I were getting to know him or her as a colleague. Another habit, albeit not a ritual: if something I’ve translated has been previously translated, I do not like to read that work prior to undertaking the project. Even though I do not have a prodigious memory, I do have an ear for narrative. If I’ve read someone else’s translation, their version could block my own inner voice, and I don’t want to risk inadvertently plagiarizing them! I also normally go back a few pages, maybe even four or five, when I start each work session, so I can get back into the voice of that project. First thing in the morning, I read some other literary work in English from the same time period as the novel I’m translating, again to stimulate the voice.


Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Maybe you could say that the way I describe “hearing” the translation is a metaphor . . . but I actually do, on a good day, hear it. Otherwise, no, I don’t think of translation as a transference or breakthrough. I would describe it more as an opening of the text, in the sense of Umberto Eco’s description of the open work, a work of fiction that allows for a range of responses and interpretations among readers and over time. 


Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

I’ve just finished editing and annotating one of my own translations. It’s a book by Brazilian author Machado de Assis, his first novel, called Resurrection. I’d been expecting the project to be rather dry, but actually I became quite absorbed with the editing. My original translation was published in 2013 by Latin American Literary Review Press, but I’d undertaken it in 2007 and 2008 as a research project for my doctoral dissertation. My research had to do with the process of translating and what it reveals about the original work, and there were no annotations. The process of preparing the new annotations, which explain locations, historical figures and references, and a few cultural customs, was far more interesting and pleasurable than I had expected. Furthermore, there was room for improvement from a literary standpoint because I had stayed so close to the original with my first translation, which is out of print. The newly annotated version of Resurrection will be coming out in October with Dalkey Archive Press.


Adam’s question for you: You’ve translated two titanic authors of the Lusophone canon: Machado de Assis and António Lobo Antunes are among the most well-known writers in the Portuguese language, but they write from very different contexts. What are the challenges of shifting between contemporary Peninsular Portuguese and nineteenth-century Brazilian Portuguese? And what kinds of insights does each version of the language give you into the other?

In this specific comparison, these authors’ styles are inversions of each other but are not in opposition to each other—Machado de Assis and Lobo Antunes create a similar literary experience with two very different techniques. The former is concise, albeit not as concise in his first novel (Resurrection) as in his later works. The latter writes extremely complex, lengthy sentences. Yet each author provides a multifaceted viewpoint. At a deep level, their context is the human experience of conflict, a romantic moral drama in the case of Machado and a sociological moral drama in the case of Lobo Antunes. On the surface, Machado’s context is late nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro, while Lobo Antunes’s context is late twentieth-century Lisbon. I needed to transport myself to these circumstances, which I did, as I mentioned, through reading literature of each period. In addition, I learned about the locations of the novels during the period they were written. My way of handling the contrast between historical eras is to transport myself, in my imagination, to wherever I need to be. This helps in maintaining the appropriate register, although as I reread and revise, I will still come across syntax and vocabulary that has slipped in and traversed centuries and must be altered. In fact, that shift in register is one of the main things I look for when I revise. As for insight, my perception of Machado’s brevity is enriched by having translated Lobo Antunes. Machado’s apparently straightforward dialogues resonate with the inner voices Lobo Antunes makes explicit in his writing, and that resonance broadens my own choice of vocabulary. Meanwhile, in English translation, Lobo Antunes’s highly complex stream-of-consciousness sentences have borrowed some clarity from Machado.


Karen C. Sherwood Sotelino (BA Stanford; MA, PhD UC Santa Cruz) was born in San Francisco, California. She has translated novels by Machado de Assis, Raul Brandão, Raduan Nassar, and António Lobo Antunes. She has taught English, Portuguese, and translation at Associação Alumni in São Paulo and Stanford University. 


Related Reading:

"A Visit from Alcibiades" by Machado de Assis, translated by Clifford E. Landers

The Translator Relay: Katrina Dodson

"Sheltering in the Prose of a Master": Padma Viswanathan on Translating Graciliano Ramos

Published Jul 6, 2021   Copyright 2021 Words Without Borders

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